El Salvador

El Salvador: A case study in the role of the affected state in humanitarian action


1. Background

The following case study of state responses to disasters in El Salvador was undertaken in the context of a broader project on 'The Role of Affected States in Humanitarian Action', overseen by the Overseas Development Institute. It sets out to examine the degree to which the Salvadoran state, in the aftermath of decades of conflict, assumed responsibilities for meeting humanitarian needs during three natural disasters that affected the country between 2001 and 2005, and how the state's response has evolved since 2005. The analysis encompasses the actions of international aid actors and donors during these disasters, and their past and current support for state mechanisms for prevention and preparedness. Research was carried out during a ten-day mission to El Salvador in November 2007. The researcher interviewed key actors in government, NGOs and international agencies. In addition, the researcher assembled extensive materials relating to the events and analysing the consequences of national and international interventions.

El Salvador is a small, densely populated country bordering Honduras and Guatemala, with a population of about 7 million. For 12 years, from 1980 to 1992, the country was engaged in civil conflict. Some 75,000 people died, approximately a million were displaced and another million left the country. The war was primarily brought about by social inequalities, repression and closed avenues for political participation. Similar wars were taking place at the same time in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

The Central American civil strife, and the conflict in El Salvador in particular, attracted international attention in the context of the Cold War. The fighting was prolonged by continuing support from Cold War rivals for the government or the insurgents. El Salvador, as well as Nicaragua and Guatemala, also attracted the attention of dozens of international NGOs from North America and Europe. They came to administer humanitarian assistance and, whether they were, in fact, ideologically committed, they were identified by the government or the insurgents as sympathetic to one side or the other. Most worked in regions controlled by the insurgents. The war ended in a negotiated peace rather than a victory for one or the other side. The peace has held, but the country's extreme poverty has persisted and inequalities have become more pronounced.

In the midst of the conflict, in October 1986, El Salvador experienced a major earthquake which caused serious damage in the capital San Salvador and surrounding areas. The government reported between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths and 200,000 left homeless. However, state preparedness for disasters began seriously with the devastating impact of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. Thereafter, issues related to disaster response and preparation moved rapidly up the policy agendas of governments and international actors in Central America. Hurricane Mitch is considered the deadliest storm to have struck the Western Hemisphere in two centuries, with a death-toll of over 11,000 and damage affecting some three million people throughout the Central American region. (1) El Salvador escaped the worst of the storm, and its losses were minor compared to those of Honduras and Nicaragua. Nevertheless, Mitch left 230 dead in the western part of the country, forced 500,000 to flee from flooding and destroyed some 80% of the corn crop. Coffee plantations and sugar cane crops were also destroyed. (2) Mitch clearly demonstrated the need for region-wide, systematic mechanisms of risk management and disaster response.

The present report is primarily concerned with the post-Mitch period, beginning in 2001. On 13 January and 13 February 2001, two major earthquakes struck, causing extensive damage throughout the central part of the country, including in the capital, San Salvador, and affecting about a quarter of the population. A second double disaster struck in the first week of October 2005, with the almost simultaneous eruption of the Ilamatepec volcano in the populous and relatively prosperous coffee growing department of Santa Ana, and Tropical Storm Stan, which produced flooding throughout the country's coastal areas.

Three factors are key to understanding El Salvador's approaches and responses to disasters. First, the country is part of a region highly vulnerable to disasters which do not respect borders. The Central American governments and donors alike have developed region-wide programmes of early warning, training and disaster mitigation measures. However, these mechanisms remain weak. Although El Salvador was largely spared the destruction caused by the major storms that affected other parts of Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean in 2007, such luck cannot hold. The only question is whether the next emergency will take the form of another earthquake, flood or volcanic eruption.

Second, partly as a legacy of the civil conflict of the 1980s, El Salvador has politically active municipal and local governments which, although presently apparently in decline, are capable of defining risks and implementing disaster responses. This report will describe the advantages of and obstacles to local response initiatives, and the tensions between centralised and decentralised mechanisms for meeting disasters.

Third, again partly as a legacy of the civil conflict, international entities, including NGOs, donors and United Nations agencies, have developed and maintained relationships with Salvadoran civil society. These relations, though at times highly politicised or politically manipulated, have reinforced municipal and local abilities to act in the face of disasters. International NGOs have longstanding ties to Salvadoran counterparts, and support them in disaster prevention actions.


(1) http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/mitch/mitch.html#INTRO.

(2) Ibid.